Category Archives: Plants

Spring Green

Spring green among the trees, Frick Park, 8 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 April 2021

This week Pittsburgh’s sugar maples are clothed in spring green flowers while the oaks remain bare. Most trees bloom long before leaf out so their leaves won’t block the pollinators. These flowers take full advantage of the wind.

Sugar maple flowers, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Did your allergies kick in this week? The trees are throwing off lots of pollen with little rain to lay the dust.

Insect-pollinated flowers will follow soon. On 3 April pawpaw flowers (Asimina triloba) were still tiny buds in Schenley Park but by the time they bloom the stems will be long and flexible. The dark maroon fetid-smelling flowers will hang like bells to attract flies and beetles. Click here to see a pawpaw flower.

Pawpaw flower bud, Schenley Park, 3 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eastern redbud flowers (Cercis canadensis) had not opened in Schenley as of 7 April, but they showed promise.

Redbuds, Schenley Park, 7 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa) was blooming at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Easter Day.

Spring cress, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 4 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

And Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) were open in Schenley Park on 9 April.

Virginia bluebells, Schenley Park, 9 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

This winter I noticed that when moss grows up the base of saplings it looks like leggings on the trees. At Raccoon Wildflower Reserve I found an entire group of saplings wearing mossy leggings. Click here to see the whole group. (Anyone know what this mossy phenomenon is?)

Mossy “leggings” on saplings, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 4 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring green will continue in the coming weeks as tiny leaves pop open and more trees bloom.

(photos by Kate St. John)

What’s Changed In 7 Years?

Ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 April 2021

About once a week I look back seven years to highlight an old blog post that is still interesting today. This morning when I looked back, I was stunned at how different spring is now in southwestern PA compared to April 2014. A lot has changed in seven years. Migrating ducks, singing frogs and flowers are showing up earlier in 2021. For instance …

Have you seen a lot of ruddy ducks lately? Seven years ago the bulk of their migration through Moraine State Park began on 5 April 2014. This year it started almost a month earlier on 11 March 2021 and is basically over now. Here’s the 2014 blog post that caught my attention: Ruddy Bubbles. Click on the hotspot icons here to see this year’s ruddy duck activity at Moraine.

Have you heard spring peepers or wood frogs calling lately? Seven years ago they were loud on 6 April 2014 (Jeepers Creepers) but this year their peak was on 12 March 2021 at Racooon Wildflower Reserve: Sights and Sounds of Early Spring. When I returned to Raccoon twelve days later the frogs were quieter. They were silent on 4 April 2021.

Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)
Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)

On 31 March 2021 I found bloodroot and hepatica blooming at Cedar Creek: Before The Freeze. Seven years ago they bloomed a couple of weeks later on 12 April 2014: It Was Fun While It Lasted.

Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s changed in seven years? The climate is warmer. Nature is responding.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(photos from Wikimdeia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Before The Freeze

Ornamental tree in bloom, Schenley Park, 31 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 April 2021

As I mentioned five days ago we had lovely warm weather in late March but now it has snowed on April Fools’ Day and dipped well below freezing in early April. Before the freeze I walked in Schenley Park and at Cedar Creek in Westmoreland County to see the flowers.

Above, the delicate pink flowers on this non-native ornamental tree won’t survive the frost. Fortunately most native wildflowers will do just fine.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooms early in the spring but is naturally cautious about exposing itself until sun shines on the plant. In these three photos, taken 31 March at Cedar Creek, you can see how the flowers are tightly closed in the morning (10:26am), begin to open as the sun hits them (11:12am) and are fully open in full sun (11:35am). The Botanical Society of Western PA schedules their walks for 1:00pm to take advantage of this behavior. They will be at Cedar Creek today.

Bloodroot, Cedar Creek, 30 March 2021, 10:26am (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot, Cedar Creek, 30 March 2021, 11:12am (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot, Cedar Creek, 30 March 2021, 11:35am (photo by Kate St. John)

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) also closes at night and opens in full sun. The flower stands tall but it takes effort to find the sharp-lobed leaves.

Sharp-lobed hepatica, Cedar Creek, 30 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sharp-lobed hepatica, Cedar Creek, 30 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Sharp lobes on hepatica, Cedar Creek, 30 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cedar Creek is famous for snow trillium (Trillium nivale), a very hardy plant. Its flowers remain open after they bloom.

Snow trillium, Cedar Creek, 30 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

On the last day of March I found box elder leafing out in Schenley Park.

Box elder leaves, Schenley Park, 31 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

And then it snowed and I was out there in it. The last snow of the winter is not as much fun as the first one.

April Fool’s Day snow captured in a spider web, Wingfield Pines, 1 April 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Soon we’ll see what the cold has wrought.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Spring Unfolds, late March

Harbinger of spring, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 March 2021

For more than a week the temperature has not dipped below freezing in western Pennsylvania, providing a chance to watch spring unfold.

On 24 March at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve my walking route took me past harbinger of spring (top), hazelnut catkins, skunk cabbage, spring beauties and cutleaf toothwort.

Hazelnut catkins, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Skunk cabbage after the flood, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Spring beauty, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Cutleaf toothwort about to bloom, Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 24 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

On 26 March my favorite northern magnolia in Schenley Park began to bloom.

Northern magnolia flower, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The buds looked like this only three days before.

Northern magnolia bud, Schenley Park, 23 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

I also found spicebush in bloom, bottlebrush buckeye leaf out, and Ohio buckeye buds bursting.

Spicebush in bloom, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bottlebrush buckeye leaf out, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ohio buckeye bud, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Ohio buckeye bursting buds, Schenley Park, 26 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The trees are still bare but European willows provide a spot of green and maple flowers add a hint of red and orange.

Bare trees lean toward the light at Pymatuning Lake, 27 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Flowering sugar maple, Pymatuning State Park, 27 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Tonight the temperature will dip close to freezing in the city and will reach a low of 24 degrees on the night of April Fools Day. No fooling! Get outdoors before that happens. Many flowers will be brown on April 2.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Spring Update, 24 March

A small wasp explores a daffodil, 23 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

24 March 2021

Spring has been popping out all over now that we’ve had a string of warm — even hot — sunny days.

Above, a small wasp checks out the daffodils at Carnegie Mellon. Below, coltsfoot is blooming in Schenley Park and cherry trees are flowering at Carnegie Museum.

Coltsfoot blooming, Schenley Park, 21 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)
Cherry tree in bloom, Carnegie Museum, 21 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

The 23 March 2021 National Phenology Network (NPN) Spring Leaf Index indicates that Leaf Out hasn’t reached the bottom left corner of Pennsylvania. The map uses honeysuckle buds as the Spring Leaf Index gauge because, though invasive, the plants are everywhere.

National Phenology Network Spring Leaf Index, 1 Jan to 23 March 2021

I should have reported what I found on Monday in Washington County. Honeysuckles were leafing out at Hillman State Park on 22 March 2021.

Leaf out! Honeysuckle leaves emerge, Hillman State Park, 22 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Garlic mustard leaves are up, too.

Garlic mustard leaves, Hillman State Park, 22 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Did you notice that all the plants I’ve shown so far are non-native?

Our native trees are cautious about frost so only the earliest, such as this red maple, have opened their flowers.

Red maple flowers, 22 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

More blooms ahead! This week’s forecast looks promising.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Sights and Sounds of Early Spring

Sun pillar at sunrise, 6 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 March 2021

Spring is coming! Our native trees are slow to bloom but cultivated flowers and amphibians are already active. There’s a lot to see and hear.

Above, on 6 March we were greeted by a sun pillar caused by ice crystals slowly falling through the air at sunrise.

A shagbark hickory lives up to its name in bright sunlight.

Shagbark hickory, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

American basswood now has bright red buds that are still cautious about opening.

American basswood buds, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 Mar 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cultivated European white willows have bright yellow twigs in March.

Cultivated willows turn yellow in early spring, Homewood Cemetery, 9 Mar 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Non-native crocuses are blooming so I hoped to see native snow trillium at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Friday, 12 March 2021. I did not find any, not even leaves. Was I too early or did the deer eat them?

However I was rewarded with the sound of frogs! Spring peepers and a few wood frogs called from the first vernal pool.

Peepers calling at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 March 2021

Wood frogs quacked in the second pool joined by a few solo peepers (hear that slow “creeeek” sound). In the video you can see the surface of the water moving with so many wood frogs.

Get outside while the sun’s shining. There’s more spring to come!

(photos audio and video by Kate St. John)

The Crocus Report

Crocus blooming in Pittsburgh, PA, 9 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

11 March 2021

This week I saw my first crocuses of 2021 at Homewood Cemetery on Tuesday 9 March. This month we’ve had several days over 60 degrees F. Are we having an early spring? Let’s look at The Crocus Report.

Tiny crocus at Homewood Cemetery, 9 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Since 2009 my blog has kept a record of crocus first-bloom dates in Pittsburgh’s East End. At first it was accidental. (I was excited by flowers and had to write about them.) Now I am intentional though unscientific. I don’t view the same crocuses every year and I don’t look for them every day. However, my crocus records show these bloom dates …

… that range from 23 February (2018, the February heat dome) to 22 March (2014, our Polar Vortex winter). Some dates repeat.

2021 calendar showing Crocus blooming dates in Pittsburgh’s East End, 2009-2021

It may seem silly to write things down but the records are useful later. The past illuminates the present and could help predict the future, though it’s harder in this topsy-turvy world of climate change.

p.s. Gardeners have more accurate records than I do. They watch the same plants every year.

(photos by Kate St.John, calendar from timeanddate.com)

Seeds Travel By Sea

Monkey-ladder vine (highlighted in red) and its heart-shaped seeds (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

5 February 2021

Many plants that grow near water disperse their seeds by riding the water wherever it goes. Fabulous among this group are tropical plants whose drift seeds cross the ocean.

The monkey-ladder vine or sea bean (Entada gigas), above, produces hard-covered heart-shaped seeds that contain an air pocket to keep them buoyant. Seeds from the Caribbean and Central America wash into the ocean and float on the Gulf Stream. Some make landfall 15 months later on the shores of Scotland.

Map of the Gulf Stream from NOAA Scijinks

This selection of drift seeds was found at the Outer Hebrides.

Drift seeds collected in Western Isles, Outer Hebrides, Scotland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They can also be found at Orkney as seen in this video from BBC Winterwatch.

The drift seeds traveled more than 4,000 miles to reach Orkney’s beaches and so did a lot of other things.

p.s. Click here to see a map of Scotland showing the Outer Hebrides and the Orkney Islands.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, tweet embedded from BBC Winterwatch)

Separating The Seeds From The Floss

Milkweed seed pods, December 2011 (photo by Kate St. John)

25 November 2020

Looking for something to do this Thanksgiving weekend? You could help next year’s monarch butterflies by planting milkweed in your garden.

Milkweed seeds have to get cold before they’ll germinate (cold stratification) so late fall is the best time to plant them outdoors. Take a walk and gather some milkweed pods. (Leave some behind for nature!) Remove the floss and plant the seeds.

Separating the floss from the seeds can be time consuming if you don’t know these tips.

When the pods are about to burst you can pop them open, grab the bundle tightly and push the seeds off with your thumb.

However, many pods have already burst in southwestern Pennsylvania so you’ll want to use a “mechanical” method to separate the floss.

Milkweed pod burst open (photo by Kate St. John)

For small batches, shake the fluff+seeds with coins in a paper bag or a food storage container.

Enormous batches call for enormous solutions, as demonstrated by Monarch Watch. Yow!

Since I’m not a gardener I have no advice about planting milkweed but here’s an excellent article that tells you everything you need to know: How to Germinate and Grow Milkweed Seeds by American Meadows.

UPDATE: Several people have recommended planting Swamp Milkweed instead of Common Milkweed because it’s a much easier plant. See Claire’s comment below.

p.s. The floss is beautiful but annoying when it flies around indoors. If it gets away from you, it will give you more to do this weekend. 😉

(photos by Kate St. John)

A Week of Summer and Fall

Lichen at Moraine State Park, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 November 2020

This week in Pittsburgh began with several days of summer and ended with autumn frost. The scenery was beautiful and well worth the time outdoors.

Above, lichen clings to a dead hemlock at Moraine State Park along the Muddy Creek Trail. Below, as of Thursday 12 November 2020 the trees were not bare in Schenley Park.

The trees are not bare yet in Schenley Park, 12 Nov 2020 (photo by Rick St. John)

But this one is.

Dead tree, blue sky, Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

Ginkgos rapidly lost their leaves in the rain on 11 November.

Ginkgos dropping leaves in Schenley Park, 11 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Many fruits and seeds.

Porcelainberry ripening, Schenley Park, 12 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)
Goldenrod gone to seed, 9 Nov 2020, Churchill Valley Greenway (photo by Kate St. John)

Can you tell me what plant this is? I found it at the base of red pines at Moraine State Park along the Muddy Creek Trail. Is it parasitic?

Wrinkled club fungus, Moraine State Park, Muddy Creek Trail, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

UPDATE 14 NOVEMBER 2020: Master gardener Dianne Machesney says this plant is Wrinkled club fungus (Clavulina rugosa). Judy Stark put my photo into iNaturalist and the app said so, too. Wikipedia says it is edible.

It’s colder now but there’s still time to get outdoors.

Outdoors is the safest place now that COVID-19 is spreading exponentially in the U.S. Pittsburgh Public Schools have gone fully remote again. Please wear a mask.

(photos by Kate & Rick St. John)